I was working in California at a prominent law firm the first time I was fired. It was January 2002, during the internet boom/bust. The partner came to my office, and said that due to the economic crisis, the firm would be laying off a group of associates, including me.
That was almost 20 years ago. As the economic impacts of the current pandemic continue to unfold, we may very well see more layoffs in the legal industry. A related impact will be on the hiring of new law graduates. If there are larger numbers of unemployed attorneys in the market, how many firms will continue to recruit the same, or even reduced, numbers of law graduates?
Whether we see a greater number of layoffs or not, the implication is clear: the career prospects for young lawyers and law students will be limited for some time.
For those who are now facing or may face such a consequence, the impact will be significant—financially, psychologically, and emotionally. For these smart and hard-working people, the challenge is not necessarily how to get a job or offer (which, to be clear, remains a priority), but how to move on from this loss and learn how to respond to other (inevitable) setbacks found in any long, successful career.
1. Life Isn’t Fair
The common first response of those who suffer loss, including a lost job or job offer, is “why me?” I work hard. I’m smart. My clients like me. My colleagues like me. Why me?
In many ways, our long-standing faith in the current system—you will succeed if you are smart, work hard, etc.—has been deeply shaken. Being laid off may also cause us to question the faith in ourselves. Many lawyers take it deeply personally, because their sense of self-identity and self-worth is often intimately tied to their professional success and, in many cases, to a specific firm or company.
To move forward, often the best reaction to the natural question of “why me” is to accept that life simply isn’t fair. And people don’t always get what they deserve. Part of that recognition, however, comes the challenge of redefining ourselves.
2. Embrace the Loss
We all grieve a loss differently, but if you are cognizant of where you are in the grieving process—Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining and Acceptance (Kessler & Kubler-Ross)—you’re in a better position to control your emotions.
That process of self-awareness or self-identification of your grieving process does not mean that you will necessarily by-pass those stages. It does, however, enable you to move more quickly through the stages.
In fact, once you have gone through those five stages, you will be positioned for the important sixth stage, Meaning—discovering the lessons in the hardship, difficulty or even perceived failure that you just experienced, so that you can leverage such insight to deal with the next setback even more swiftly.
3. Do Not Burn Bridges
Given the shock and trauma of a loss of job, it’s tempting to lash out. I’ve have heard of difficult interactions following a departure between the departing lawyer and firm management or staff.
Do not forget that how you act in response to the separation will be part of your professional reputation. Anything you do to taint that reputation will stay with you for perhaps a long time. Conversely, your continued professionalism will be much appreciated for those remaining behind who often find separation uncomfortable or stressful.
Second, the relationships that you’ve established at that firm may be helpful or productive to you over your long career. Many of the partners at the firm that fired me were very supportive of my various job searches and business activities over the next 15 years.
4. Understand Your Financials & Reducing the Cost Base
Many of us live beyond our means. If you haven’t already done so, make a budget. Know what you’re spending money on. Once you have that financial baseline, you will be in a better position to decide where to cut to reduce your cost base.
Understanding your financial situation will also help you better define your job search—what kind position/pay are you willing to accept; do you take something on a contract basis or wait for a permanent position (or how long could you wait?), etc.
5. Leverage Your Network—Don’t Rush (but don’t procrastinate either)
In the days and weeks after my layoff, I sent out my resumé to everyone I knew—friends, acquaintances, clients, etc. This shotgun approach is not effective. Indeed, even if there were a job opening, my approach reeked of desperation, which did little for my marketability.
It’s better to pause and take a breath. Assess your strengths and weakness. Spend time thinking about the experience, professional development opportunities, and career path that you seek. While there may be immediate financial pressures that must be met, take the time to formulate a thoughtful personal sales pitch. People are more likely to be helpful if they feel that you’ve done some hard work around why they should commit time, and their own reputation, to extend help in your search.
The other tendency of some is not to reach out for help. Seeking the right opportunity is difficult enough in a normal market. Carrying out a job search without external support in a down market is very, very difficult.
6. Consider Different Paths
For most successful people, their career did not proceed in straight line. There were invariably many peaks and valleys.
The legal industry today offers different opportunities than that of the previous financial crises. While the traditional legal or law firm career track may not be as plentiful, there are opportunities in the industry that are emerging or don’t even exist yet. As a silver lining, the current crisis has accelerated long-term trends in the profession—digital transformation, the proliferation of non-law firm legal services providers, the creation of allied legal professionals, etc.—that will see the creation of new jobs and careers.
Get out there and start talking to people. Find out what they’re working on. Find opportunities to be engaged. Begin positioning yourself for the next position(s).
7. Relationships with Recruiters
I contacted a number of recruiters, many of whom were all inundated with resumés from people like me. Some recruiters were very kind and spent some time getting to know me. Some were not.
Identify those recruiters who are truly curious about you and the talent market; there are only a few. Work closely with them to see how you can package your set of skills/tools to make you as marketable as possible. Developing deep relationships with these special recruiters over your career will pay off handsomely.
The loss of a job or job offer is no doubt traumatic. And we all grieve differently. What is important, however, is how to transition quickly through the grieving process to create the right mindset and conditions to pursue and secure new professional opportunities, both in the short and long term.
You may now be wondering about the second time I was fired? Well, that’s another story. With a few more lessons.